Social Darwinism

The term “social Darwinism” was coined by its critics. It gained currency even by its proponents, though, during the Victorian Era, as a phrase to identify various utilitarian philosophies and policies that attributed human progress to competition among individuals. Valuing competition as a great good fit the spirit of the day, and it predated Darwinian biology.

In the late 1700’s, Adam Smith argued that economic progress depended on individual initiative. Not governmental regulation, not social networks, but individual initiative. His faith in the natural harmony of human interactions gave him hope that all people would benefit from laissez-faire capitalism (unregulated capitalism).

By 1800, Thomas Malthus noted that due to natural limits on resources, there would be losers as well as winners in any social competition. This separated him from Adam Smith, but yet he embraced the idea that the struggle for existence fosters the general good by weeding out the week. As painful as this might be to some, in the long run, it was for the best. Malthus’s thinking inspired Darwin to conceive natural selection as the engine for biological evolution.

Even before Darwin published his ideas, though, Herbert Spencer popularized the Malthusian view of individual and group competition. He is the one who coined the term survival of the fittest, which was later so much associated with Darwinian thinking. He held the struggle for survival as the only sure foundation for human progress.

With the advent of Darwinism in biology, Spencer’s views on social development became known as social Darwinism, rather than “social spencerianism”, even though Darwin did not publicly endorse the ideas. This is probably because biology carries so much credibility. Tying one’s ideas to biology rather than just social sciences gives them more credibility.

Social Darwinism encouraged laissez-faire capitalism and discourages helping the “weak”. This was in an era of industrialization and urbanization. In this period, Western Europe and the United States were being transformed from an agricultural land to urbanized areas where most people were thrown together in cities. This created the world we find in Dickens’ novels, where homelessness abounded and there weren’t social networks that took care of the mentally or physically disabled.

Was government going to move in and fill the social gaps left by urbanization? Were taxes going to be raised to provide welfare and social support networks? These were important questions in Western Europe and the United States in the late 1800’s. This is where Spencer ideas had an impact.

Spencer maintained that government should never interfere in domestic, economic or social affairs. He maintained also that public health and welfare programs, over the long run, simply harmed people. How could they harm people? They harm people by taxing and holding back the rich, the able, the hard-working; and allowing the “weak” to survive and multiply without improvement. Nature eliminates efficiency, and any interference in this process was doomed to failure.

Industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and James Jerome Hill, publicly justified their cutthroat business practices in social Darwinist terms. Sure there are some losers in these practices, but there are also winners. We happened to be the winners, and that’s because we’re the most fit. Ultimately, it is not to our benefit, but to the benefit of society.

Biologists who espoused Darwinism did not necessarily accepted social Darwinism. A great example is Alfred Russell Wallace. He was a prime advocate of socialism, and was the most visible opponent of social Darwinism. He argued that humans could guide their own evolution, and were not bound by the biological processes. At the time, however, he was swimming upstream. Social Darwinists continually used biological Darwinism to justify their views, and to give them weight and authority.

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